Center Field: Liberalism and nationalism should mesh, not clash

The xenophobe sees outsiders as possible threats not potential partners. The postmodernists see nationalists as destructive bullies not constructive patriots.

August 21, 2019 21:51
What kind of nationalism?

What kind of nationalism?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I wish to report a crime: Aggressive, xenophobic nationalists are giving nationalism a bad name. Rather than having the confidence to allow entry to Israel-bashing members of Congress and letting these Jew-haters prove their intolerance, these ultra-nationalists help the Israel-haters look like martyrs by denying them entry. I don’t care what these anti-Jewish bigots say, I care about what our panic says about us. And rather than having the grace to preserve some long-held Arab properties in Jerusalem’s Old City, other ultra-nationalists allow corrupt land deals to go through – or applaud tricksters trying to “Judaize Jerusalem,” as if that’s our big challenge.

I wish to report a second crime: Nihilistic, illiberal liberals are giving liberalism a bad name. Some loud bullies who hate Israel obsessively are trying to define the progressive stance on Israel, bullying any brave pro-Israel voices. Unable to distinguish between an imperfect democracy like Israel and perfectly awful terrorist-loving dictators imposing power over the Palestinians, they romanticize Hamas and the Palestinian Authority while demonizing Israel.

It shouldn’t be this lonely in the middle – or so hard for reasonable people to see the flaws among both extremists. Note how defensive and narrow nationalism becomes without liberalism. And note how self-righteous yet inconsistent liberalism becomes without nationalism. Why do anti-Zionists attack Israel constantly yet excuse constant PA attack on gays? Where’s the liberalism there?

The great ideologies of the 1700s and 1800s which still shape our world were not Johnny-one-note doctrines, but complex, tempered worldviews.

When I teach about this fertile period, I introduce the different doctrines: rationalism, nationalism and liberalism. I show how they clashed and fused, sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively. Nationalism and rationalism, in extremes, spawned Nazism. By contrast, liberalism and nationalism, in creative tension, created that remarkable experiment in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the United States.

The US wasn’t perfect then and isn’t perfect now. But the current re-reading of American history, whereby mainstream Democratic candidates like Beto O’Rourke say, “Our country was founded on racism – and is still racist” is too categorical and pinched. It misses the self-correcting democratic miracles that freed America, freeing today’s progressives to judge America so harshly today. Similarly, Zionism synthesized Judaism and nationalism and liberalism to create Israel.

Unfortunately, subtleties, complexities and fusions don’t tweet well and often don’t sell well today. They demand a generosity of spirit along with a tolerance of disagreement and of life’s messiness.

So, it’s easier for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do President Donald Trump’s bidding and try fighting BDS by boycotting boycotters rather than boycotting boycotts. And it’s easier for Rabbi Tuly Weisz to attack me in these pages for my column endorsing a magnanimous Zionism that will try saving the New Imperial Hotel and the Arab flavor of the Jaffa Gate area.

MY DEFENSE of the hotel the Dajani family has run for seven decades did not rest on who they are or what the Greek Patriarchate is, but what we wish to be. I built my argument on today’s solid Zionist foundations. We’re not skittish, defensive, broken people but secure, generous-minded liberal-nationalists.

In June 1967, Roman Yagel, an Israeli officer, allowed Abu-El-Walid Dajani, then 23, to visit his family’s hotel, which had become a temporary Israeli Army barracks following Jerusalem’s liberation. As Dajani arrived, another neighbor did too, asking for his box back. Days before the war, Dajani had stored that box in the hotel safe – unaware that it held a fortune in diamonds. When they opened the safe and removed the box, every jewel remained, untouched. Impressed, Yagel drove Walid back to the Dajani home in his jeep – delivering bundles of food while befriending the family.

True, the story begins with Dajani’s integrity. But for Zionists, it pivots around Yagel’s generosity. He could have barred Dajani from the hotel and seized the diamonds, or sent Dajani scurrying home without food. Yet, somehow he couldn’t be a brigand or a bully – that’s not who he was. Yagel lived up to Jewish values, to Zionist ideals, and to the IDF code of ethics. Acting magnanimously caused him no harm – and probably helped him sleep well at night.

Half-a-century later, Israel is stronger and safer. So why can’t we act more securely, more expansively? What about all those Jewish lessons about remembering that we, too, were strangers away from our land? What about the liberal notion that the test of freedom comes from tolerating thoughts we hate and unfair critics.

I won’t allow extremists of the Left to push me Right – or vice versa. The demagogue defines congressional Democrats by marginal members like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar rather than the dozens of new, open-minded members of Congress who visited Israel earlier this month. The xenophobe sees outsiders as possible threats not potential partners. The postmodernists see nationalists as destructive bullies not constructive patriots.

Liberal nationalism doesn’t split differences. Instead, it unites different people in common cause, resisting fanatics while seeking the golden path forged by fusing ideas. Liberal-nationalists resist plunging into the pits of poison and pessimism festering at both extremes. How did Left and Right in America unite to win World War II? How did the Zionist Left and Right unite to establish the State of Israel? Why do rich people agree to be taxed to help the poor? Without the glue of nationalism, few citizens would unite to do good; without the spirit of liberalism, few citizens would be motivated to try bettering themselves, their state or the world.

The writer, one of Algemeiner’s top 100 people ‘positively influencing Jewish life,’ is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an updated expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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